Intolerable Cruelty
directed by Joel & Ethan Coen
(Universal, 2003)

It's been 20 years since the Coen Brothers, Ethan and Joel, began entertaining movie audiences with their dark comedic view of postmodern life, a long strange trip even by Jerry Garcia's standards.

It began with Blood Simple, a minimalist look at murder in which now you see it, or maybe you don't. They've come a long way since that brilliant rookie year -- Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother Where Art Thou. But one thing has always remained constant: their ability to create wonderfully absurd caricatures. Whether they're Big Lebowskis or small, they're expressionistic masterpieces of the first order.

In this respect at least, Intolerable Cruelty is no exception. It revolves around two of America's favorite caricatures: a divorce lawyer, Miles Massey (George Clooney), and a professional divorcee, Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

Their paths cross when Massey represents Rexroth's soon-to-be ex, Rex (Edward Herrmann), in what promises to be the divorce trial of the century but quickly turns into a legal freak show. That transformation is made possible by the performance of brilliant supporting caricature No. 1, Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy (Jonathan Hadary), whose testimony -- complete with pampered pooch on his lap on the witness stand -- ends any possibility Marylin will leave her marriage money in hand. And it doesn't do much for Rex's reputation, either.

But Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy -- admit it, you haven't heard names like this since you last read Dickens -- is nearly outdone by Wheezy Joe (Irwin Keyes), the asthmatic assassin Miles hires and then tries to unhire at the last nanosecond to get him out of a very sticky situation. Both, however, have to compete with Gus Petch (Cedric the Entertainer), the vid-cam-clutching private eye who gathers the goods on Rex and Rex's ex and anyone else who just happens to get in the way of someone's money.

With all this going on, you'd think there wouldn't be room for a plot, but there is: It has something to do with Miles and Marilyn being hopelessly attracted to each other -- when they're not trying to top, kill or get the goods on one another -- and with the much-vaunted Miles Massey Prenuptual Agreement, which, to use the film's rather dated marital metaphor, has "never been penetrated."

If all this isn't enough for you, there's plenty more -- including Geoffrey Rush being assaulted from behind with his Daytime TV Lifetime Achievement Award or Miles addressing his fellow lawyers at the NOMAN (National Organization of Marital Attorneys Nationwide) convention in Vegas. (OK, the group's motto is "Let No Man Put Asunder," but wasn't Noman the name Ulysses used to fool the Cyclops before he blinded him in The Odyssey, the epic spoofed by the Coens in O Brother? Just a thought.)

All of these seemingly loose ends are then neatly sewn together in true Chekhovian form by the brothers Coen, who seem to discover more in a 100-minute movie than some filmmakers find in a lifetime of work.

Fargo it's not, but Intolerable (and hysterical) Cruelty it is.

- Rambles
written by Miles O'Dometer
published 9 October 2004

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